Berlin has become, without a doubt, one of the most popular cities for expats to call home. Many come for the cheap living, excellent arts, and wild nightlife, all of which the city offers in spades. Others, naturally, for the schnitzel. What most aren’t ready for, though, are the inevitable obstacles they face upon arriving, a lot of which are universal when moving to any new country, but many of which are so. Damn. German.
I moved to Berlin a few years ago with an excellent network of expat friends to guide me through the transition, but there were still plenty of peculiarities I had to learn along the way. To help the next wave of folks eager to try out the German capital, here is a list of things I wish someone had told me about living in this amazing city.
Beer is not a big deal
As soon as you say Germany, people think beer. And while Berliners certainly consume their fair share of suds, the real beer culture in Germany is almost entirely to the south, in Bavaria. Your local brewpub in Baltimore probably has a move diverse and interesting selection.
Everyone speaks English
One would assume that moving to Berlin would offer a crash course in speaking German. Until you discover that everyone here speaks English, and often with some indistinguishable polyglot accent that will have you confusing German natives for Australian backpackers (much to the German’s chagrin). If only they just all sounded like Dieter from Sprockets.
The rent is not too damn high, but it's not really cheap either
I mean, it’s still cheap compared to New York or London. But the days when you could pay your rent by working two nights a week at some expat bar while spending the rest of the time trying to launch that line of asymmetrically fitted T-shirts is a thing of the past.
You can’t get kale
Yes, kale, that American hipster superfood is a mere seasonal product (Oct-Dec) in Germany, used only by grandmothers for a holiday dish cooked in pig fat and served with knackwurst. I’ve met young Germans who didn’t even know that kale and Grünkohl are the same vegetable. [Insert German word for "outrageous!" here.]
Pharmaceuticals are hard to get
One could make the argument, judging from the sheer number of drug ads on US television, that Americans are overmedicated. Germans, on the other hand, are utterly terrified that anything stronger than ibuprofen will turn you into a Requiem for Dream-level junkie. Ironic, since the local caffeinated beverage of choice, Club-Mate, packs more punch than a fistful of Adderall.
Drivers licenses cost a small fortune
Germans are known for cars, but unlike America, which practically gives away licenses inside cereal boxes, getting certified to drive in Germany can take up to a year of training and cost upwards of €2,000. Yes, you read that correctly: a drivers license in Deutschland runs around $2,200!!! Your American license is valid for six months upon arrival, and while you might be able to skip some of the required training and testing, it mostly depends on which US state issued your original license.
Electricity is expensive
Germany produces 27% of the world’s solar power, way higher than the rest of Europe (19%) and 2.5 times more than all of North America (11%). This is a good thing, until you discover that average electricity costs in Germany are two to four times higher than in the United States. So turn off the light and close the damn refrigerator door.
Weirdly, keys are also costly
Any hardware store in America will cut a dozen copies of almost any key for a couple of bucks a pop. Losing a set in Berlin will run you upwards of $33 per key, and will usually require you provide documentation from your landlord to get a new set.
The U-Bahn doesn’t run on weeknights
Berlin might be one of the great nightlife capitals of the world, but the U-Bahn stops running around 1am, Sunday-Thursday, meaning you can either take the night bus (slow), jump in a taxi (expensive), or just stay at the party until 5am when it starts back up again.
Stores are closed on Sundays
On the one hand, this escape from consumerist culture is a nice relief. That is, until you need to go all the way to one of the three main train stations to buy groceries, because that’s the only option on a Sunday. Fortunately, bars, restaurants, and clubs are open on the Sabbath, ready to take your euros.
The radio fee
Yes, you have to pay an annual €250+ (around $280) bill for radio and television, even if you don’t own a TV or radio. It's nuts. Much like in America, German broadcast media is privatized, but with regulations that mandate a certain amount of “smart” content (like PBS). Instead of being paid for with federal tax revenue though, the funding comes from a government-mandated fee that is paid to a private broadcasting company. This nuance is meant to add a layer of separation between media and the government, which is presumably a good thing. But it doesn’t feel that way when the bill arrives.
Open relationships are common
Fifteen percent of German singles prefer to have multiple partners, which is second only to Italians (and surprisingly higher than the French, at 11%). Out of that 15%, we assume 80% live in Berlin, where monogamy (even within a relationship) seems as uncool as liking Hasselhoff (seriously, no matter what you hear -- Germans are not into that dude). This might sound like a great deal to some, until your girlfriend vanishes into the dark room at some club with an Italian tourist.
Public nudity is NOT verboden!
If you’re the type who likes a good sauna after a workout, be prepared to share, as almost every spa in Berlin is co-ed, and people aren’t particularly modest with their towels. This comes from the Free Body Culture movement that dates back to the 1800s and separates nudity for health from sexual nakedness. Which suddenly makes sense when you’re sitting across from a sexy woman in the steam room, and in walks a senior citizen icing his scrotum.
It’s friggin' dark in the winter
No surprise that Berlin winters are cold, but when the sun disappears by 3:30pm, it's the darkness that gets you. Even worse, skies are usually overcast so you can go days (if not weeks) without glimpsing the sun. How they're able to generate all of that expensive electricity is anybody's guess.